Testimony on SB 354, Changing DOE Appointments

This is my testimony on SB 354, requiring the commissioner and deputy commission of the department of education to be confirmed by a joint session of the general court. It will be presented to the Senate Rules, Enrolled Bills and Internal Affairs Committee on Thursday, January 14, 2016.

If you have not already done so, please contact the committee as they may exec the bill at any time.

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Currently the commissioner and deputy commissioner are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Executive Council. The bill would change this to nominations that are confirmed by a simple majority vote of both the NH Senate and House.

Increasingly these offices are very politicized and not consistent with New Hampshire’s values for school choice, parental rights, and local control of education.

In the last couple years the state Department of Education has entered into binding agreements with the US Department of Education through grant applications and waiver agreements, including ones that tie New Hampshire to using highly controversial Common Core (aka College and Career Readiness Standards) assessments. This has occurred without any review or approval of the legislative branch. Recall HB 323 from the 2015 legislative session. This was a highly contentious bill that involved skilled negotiations because the NH DOE put our state in a corner to adopt standards and tests that remove local control. When this bill finally came to the Senate floor for a vote, Senator John Reagan said, “I rise in opposition to this and all the other amendments before now and after this to this bill. I arrived at this conclusion when seeking the truth, I found I was unable to believe information coming from the state Department of Education.”

Additionally, in February 2014 Commissioner Barry made very disparaging remarks about parents at a House Education Committee at the public hearing for HB 1508. This was a bill about Common Core. Commissioner Barry referred to parents as a “small, loud group of misinformed individuals.” Even if we disagree about Common Core, this is very disrespectful of parents and the New Hampshire culture of a politically engaged citizenry.

Right now the NH DOE is also pursuing the tiny town of Croydon for their school choice program through the AG’s office although the program is consistent with state statute and precedent. They are using taxpayer resources to try to shut down this program although it saves the town approximately $16K and was approved by the local residents. The NH DOE, as directed by the commissioner, also sought an injunction against the school board that would have effectively removed the four Croydon students from their school of choice. At the November 30th hearing in Strafford Superior Court the AG, on behalf of the NH DOE said the Croydon students were “irreparably harmed” each day they remained at the Montessori school. Parents of these students and the Croydon school board submitted affidavits that the children are happy and thriving at their school. The injunction was denied in mid December, and the larger issue is still progressing through the court. Whether or not you support the Croydon program is not the issue here today; however, the notion that the students are “irreparably harmed” at a school of their choosing is outrageous.

These actions by the DOE commissioner and deputy commissioner show that the offices are highly politicized appointments and not aligned with New Hampshire’s broad support for educational options, parental rights regarding their children’s education, and local control.

SB 354 makes both state agency offices more representative of, and therefore more accountable to the general electorate and not just political appointments of the executive branch.

Please support SB 354 with an Ought to Pass recommendation.